January 29, 2011
Telecommuting: Less green than we think?
Those who champion telecommuting (yours truly included) are fond of mentioning that working from home is better for the environment. Less cars on the road. Less corporate offices to heat, cool, and light. Less clothing and drycleaning required. And so on.
[Photo by Cory M. Grenier]
Not so fast, argued a story on NPR's Marketplace this week. Pointing to a formula created by researchers at the University of California Berkeley (PDF), Marketplace claimed that "before feeling all environmentally virtuous about staying home" workers need to take into account the particulars of their specific commute, climate, office setup at work, and heat source at home, to name a few. In other words, you might help the planet by telecommuting, and you might not.
For example, I have been working at a contract job four days a week for the past three months. I usually telecommute at least one day a week. While wonderful for my productivity and sanity, I'm not sure my working from home gives the planet much of a sustainability boost. Yes, my contract gig is 20+ miles from my home, but I have someone with whom I can carpool, so the more-cars-on-the-road argument goes out the window. In addition, at work I share a small office with two other people, so the utilities are on whether I'm there or not. What's more, it's an ultra-casual office, so I haven't felt compelled to buy any fancypants new outfits that require ironing or weekly trips to the drycleaner. And when I do go to work, I bring my own sandwich and fruit for lunch rather than get takeout in a Styrofoam box or something equally landfill unfriendly.
On the flip side, when I work from home, I do use more electricity and water just by virtue of being in my house. On days when two fleeces won't suffice indoors, my options for heating my home office are an electric space heater or a non-energy-efficient furnace that runs on oil (no need to admonish me for the old furnace or remind me about the green rebates I stand to gain by replacing it; it's on the list of home repairs for the coming year).
The Marketplace story coughed up a couple of similar examples in which a worker wasn't necessarily doing much to help the environment by telecommuting: a woman who likes biking to work but now telecommutes for a company that has no brick-and-mortar office, and a woman who lives 20+ miles from work but has a rickety old furnace at home that makes mine seem like an Energy Star champ by comparison.
I get the point NPR was trying to make with this story, but I'm certainly not willing to write off working from home as no greener than working in an employer's office across the board. You don't need to crunch too many numbers to recognize that telecommuters who aren't helping the planet by staying home during the workday are the exception rather than the rule. Behold:
- In 2010, an IBM poll of 8,000 drivers from 20 cities around the world and found that 84 percent of U.S. respondents drove to work alone every day. (More info here.)
- The Telework Research Network, which has synthesized more than 200 studies on telecommuting and other sociological trends, found that a national day of telecommuting would save the country 900 million miles driven to work, 2.3 million barrels of oil, and 45 million gallons of gas. (More info here.)
But you don't need numbers to see what's going on. Just take a drive on 405, 520, or I-90 during rush hour and note the number of cars carrying one occupant vs. those carrying two or more.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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